Megahilly vs Frightened Cyclists

This weekend I organised a race in the Cotswolds. I use the term ‘race’ quite loosely; it’s been described as an exercise in unremitting nastiness, the 5 hills of hell and the hilliest hilly ever. It used to be organised by Mike Hallgarth, a local luminary in the TT scene, but of late the event has been lying dormant. After a bit of back and forth we agreed to resurrect it during a conversation one balmy evening at a hill climb on Stouts Hill, under the assumption that if you keep talking about it, it might never happen, whereas if you stick it in the handbook then that’s that.

Organising an event is a considerable undertaking, especially a hilly time trial with a complicated parcours. It requires a lot of willing marshalls and all sorts of other people to help. To this end i was indebted to the support of the Dursley Road Club and Bristol South. The important task of providing the cakes was taken up by Belle, with a selection of delicious chocolate brownies, mini banana muffins and flapjacks various.

Prior to an event I tend to hope for a couple of things: a dry day with not much breeze, but primarily a dry day, and an event run without any accidents or injuries. It is always in the back of my mind when organising any kind of race on public roads that there is an element of risk involved; it’s inescapable, i guess the aim is to do everything you can to minimise the level of risk and ensure that everybody rides quickly, but safely. This is magnified on certain courses like dual carriageways, but also hilly courses where there can be blind corners, or sleepy villagers meandering into the road at 9am possibly not expecting to see some bongo-clad bongorider hurtling through the sticks at 36mph, or several extremely fast descents.

Steve Green in the new kit

The race took in the gentle climbs of Wotton-Under-Edge, Crawley, Frocester, Selsey and Stouts, totalling 1000 metres of climbing in 28 miles. The Little Mountain Time Trial, a classic and long standing event viewed as seriously lumpy, manages to pack in slightly less climbing over 11 more miles. This puts things into perspective. On the day most competitors, bar about 4 (myself included) turned up on road bikes, it simply wasn’t seen as a TT bike course. To be fair, any race where you’re averaging between 15 and 18mph isn’t really one that rewards slipperiness. At the last minute i opted to take the TT bike and just left it as it normally is, heavyweight disc wheel and trispoke, the works. I could have saved around 1500g if i’d switched wheels, but couldn’t be bothered to change the brake blocks. I was also more worried about making sure all the preparations were made for the event than fine-tuning my assault on the course record.

The course starts on a 6 minute climb which doesn’t help matters. I caught my minute man very quickly. After a fast descent and a savage climb up through Uley it turns left to Frocester. Things get interesting here because you have to descend a very long hill at speed whilst contemplating the creeping awareness that you have to return from whence you came; uphill. It’s made worse by the sight of other riders struggling horribly to ascend; a harbinger of doom. The same happens on the descent of Selsey, you get to see your comrades gripping the handlebars and hear the death-rattle of hill-blasted lungs long before they come past at 2mph.

After Selsey there’s only the one climb left. Finishing on a climb is particularly horrible, you can’t really get everything out, you just have to cling on for dear life, pedalling squares from bottom to top. Strange things happen as time and space collapses in on itself; i could see Graham Douchebag up ahead through the tree canopy – i’d caught him for fifteen minutes, but couldn’t summon up the energy to get across the last 30 yards. At this point i harboured deep regrets over my smallest gear ratio of 44:25. By the time i limped across the lane i was ready to vomit. I felt ready to vomit for the rest of the day, and probably most of Monday.

home-made steampunk results board

I came second to Derek Smetham by a slender 6 seconds. I’ll settle for that, you can’t win your own event after all and I descended like a fretful grandmother on a raleigh 20. Derek rode fast and fearlessly with only a cloth cap and skin suit for company.

Derek: power to weight writ small

After the event I broke my Strava embargo because i wanted to see the split times for the ups and downs. I gave away hours on the descents but made up slabs of time going uphill and on the flat. Several other people uploaded their data from the race to Strava. I imagine somewhere there’s a keen cyclist who has been sitting proudly on the KOM for Selsey, Wotton, Stouts, Frocester and other such climbs for about a year or so, feeling invulnerable and the king of all the Cotswolds, only to turn on their computer on Sunday and find they’d slipped from 1st to 13th in the blink of an eye. In the space of 28 miles i managed to notch up 16 KOMS, most by around 20-30 seconds and some by as much as a minute. I think there’s probably some very suspicious Cotswold riders out there now wandering what the hell just happened to their digitised high score table. The odd thing is at the time it didn’t feel super-fast, i wasn’t in hill climb mode and was trying to moderate my efforts slightly to avoid blowing up spectacularly. I also know that although i did a 5.54 or so on Stouts, i’ve managed close to 5 minutes in a hill climb. It’s interesting to suddenly see the comparisons with other riders again, and a bit of an ego boost if i’m honest. Nevertheless, my hatred of Strava remains entrenched; it’s a part of the inexorable digitisation of the outside world.

One last thing – the HQ i used was the Scout Hut at Conygres, up above Wotton. It’s got a certain rustic charm insofar as it’s not much more than a cowshed. As Steve pointed out, it’s fast become the West DC’s answer to the Roubaix Showers.

conygres cowshed
Roubaix showers

I’ll be running the event again next year. People were universally positive about the race, despite – or in spite of –  it being ridiculously hard. Well done to everyone who rode; it’s rare that races can afford such a sense of achievement amidst the pain.

Reviewing Progress

Reviewing your season is an important element of bike racing. Like many other cyclists I set a series of goals at the start of the year, usually not that far into the off-season. It helps keep me focused on what I want to achieve.

At the end of last year i had PBs of 20.47, 52.15, 1.58 and 4.11.30 for the 10, 25, 50 and 100 respectively. I came 4th in the WTTA hardriders series with 705 points.

My targets for 2012 were as follows:

sub 20.19 for a 10 (club record)
sub 51.30 for a 25 (club record is 50.53, might be out of reach, but we shall see)
new PB in a 50 than this year
sub 1.05.12 in a 30 (club record)

I was also aiming for an improvement in the WTTA series in terms of placings and times. In essence, i spent the first half of the season not really troubling these lofty ambitions, apart from the WTTA, where i seemed to be absolutely flying. These are events which are untroubled by the need for a fast day or course, they are hilly and challenging time trials in scenic areas of the countryside. I came 3rd at Chippenham in the most brutal conditions imaginable, then 2nd at Gillingham, 2nd at Severn, 2nd at Bath, 2nd at Cheltenham, I won at Westbury, came 2nd at Minehead and won at Burrington. In the first 6 events I found i was consistently around 2 minutes faster than a year ago. It was good enough for 717 points and second behind the evergreen Rob Pears. The Westbury win was a cracking weekend because I won the BSCC Open 10 the day before.

I then dabbled around doing a few different events and tried my best not to crash in road races. Doing a bit of massed start was not on the agenda at the start of the year, but it was worth a punt and I ended up getting my 3rd Cat licence pretty quickly and entirely down to the fact that one of the races had a team trial at the beginning so i sat on the front for most of it and we annihilated the opposition. The opening road stage was slightly different, i sat on the front for a bit and was annihilated by the opposition. I am undecided as to whether i will be taking the road races more seriously next year. If i do it will be hilly ones only.

In about August time things suddenly started to happen really quickly. I lined up a tilt at a few fast courses and tried to make sure I had the form to go with it. This meant travelling up north for the V718, a sheltered and quick strip of tarmac near Hull. It was one of those days where everything suddenly seemed to be in alignment and I bagged a 30mph ride. 4 weeks later i repeated the trick and turned in a 19.42, taking a minute off my PB and nearly a minute from the club record.

I also hit the U7b which is my favourite course but notoriously slow. i somehow managed to scrape under 21 minutes out in the graveyard (twice) with a 20.46 being about as fast as last year’s PB on any course. The same weekend I made the trek over to South Wales for a last crack at a quick 25 – my PB had been elusive all season. The conditions and the headwind were finally in the right place and I managed a 50.21, which was also good enough to shave 30 seconds from the club record. During the event I was passed by Michael Hutchinson who was en route to competition record of 45.46. Jeff Jones also managed a super fast 47.40.

Hill climb season wasn’t in my aims because i felt the Rake didn’t suit me. I rode it anyway, and managed 35th place. I should probably have made it a goal and tried harder, or ridden a smaller gear. I’m not sure I could have tried harder, unless i went as far as Jack Pullar who spent 25 minutes puking violently into a bucket after his effort. The real goal was Burrington, and despite it being a slower day I managed to win the event. It was my 5th open win of the season, along with the Westbury Hilly, Severn 10, BSCC 10 and the Haytor HC.

And that’s it. Since last Sunday I’ve eaten an significant amount of Cadbury’s Chocolate.

we went to cadbury’s world and bought the contents of the factory. we then celebrated in subway.

It’s been an extraordinarily successful season on a personal level. I made progress i didn’t imagine was possible. I also got married in March, which outdoes even a short 19 in terms of amazingness. I have no idea what happens next season. I am going to give it some thought over the next few weeks and then come up with some aims. Having just said that I have no idea what happens next season, i do know a couple of things: the Stang will be featuring quite heavily in my end of year plans, it climbs 800 feet in a little over 2 miles; and it’s likely that my early season may be preoccupied with an exciting new arrival that unusually doesn’t come from the local bike shop.

“Me and My Hill Climb Bike”

There are some fantastic bikes and riders in this short video taken from Cycling Weekly, including Paul Brierley, riding his 25th consecutive national. Yikes. Lynn Hamel is filmed riding and reflecting on her course record. Matt Pilkington’s rear brake is quite classy. Jack Pullar’s saddle is not built for long distances and is an example of finest drillium.

Perspectives on the National Hill Climb Championship

There are a number of photo galleries online.

Velo UK have a comprehensive set.

Chorley CC have captured some frightening hill climb gurns.

There is also a video nasty on youtube:

There are various race reports and blogs:

Cycling Weekly.

Tejvan’s take on things. 

Hamilton Wheelers…

This image is from Velo UK. It encapsulates the climb: rider in complete agony, struggling to keep it together, spectators having a whale of a time, beaming from ear to ear.

RTTC National Hill Climb Championship

Hill Climbs are Amazing

The National Hill Climb is the last event in a very long season. It attracts riders from all disciplines, anxious to avoid heading into the long winter of rain and wind with memories of a slack last race. It’s also one of the most atmospheric events in the amateur racing calendar, although its amateur status is compromised slightly by the frequent presence of professional roadmen – nevertheless this is encouraged and adds spice to the mix.

It took place today on the Rake in Lancashire and was organised by Peter Graham, a sprightly and droll character who won the event more than once in the late 1950s. He also provides the commentary from his panopticon at the very steepest part of the course, the last 200 yards of 25%. It goes without saying that the organisation was amazing and it felt as though the whole town had come out to watch. There were other luminaries on the climb including elite cyclist Rik Waddon.

One of the challenging things about the RTTC National Championship is that no two years are ever the same. This year’s running, at about 950 yards and 2 and half minutes for the winners, could not be more different to last year’s epic slow death, the 4.4 miles of Long Hill near Buxton. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out that the height gain on the Rake is more pronounced than that of last year’s. One thing is for certain, the event will return to the Rake again and again, but will never ever go back to Long Hill.

I rode fixed today as the defining old school gesture in a defiantly old school hill climb season. My bike attracted no end of admiring glances and comments, including one chap who said simply, ‘you’re bike is amazing. It really is’. Cycling Weekly also interviewed my bike whilst I was in the toilets. Fame by proxy. I opted for a 57” gear, a few inches shorter than the supposed ‘Rake gear’ of 59, the course record gear of champion Jim Henderson and other sprightly hill warriors. I forgot the basic tenet of fixed wheel hill-slaying: the gear of champions is not the gear of mortals. More on this shortly.

The climb starts at a mild 10%, pulling away from the library in downtown Ramsbottom. It’s a heavy start which is alleviated only slightly by the milder slope to follow, a piffling 300 meters of 2 to 3 percent. There were quite a few spectators and cowbells on the lower slopes, including 5 time winner Jim Henderson who cheered me on raucously. It was quite a feeling and I’d like to have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t hell bent on riding as hard as I could and locked into my hill-climb gurnface. Instead I managed a mental acknowledgement that I was being cheered on by a legend of the sport. I think at this point I probably looked quite smooth, 100 yards out of the gate, in the first flush of the race.

The flatter section supposedly offered respite, but not in any tangible form. It’s too short a climb to have any moments of rest, you just have to throw all your toys out of the pram at once, leaving nothing short. As soon as the soft section ends (and begins), it’s time for purgatory, a savage and lingering death at the hands of a real wall of noise, sound, penury, pain and suffering and vicarious cheering. Even at number 77, relatively early on the card, there was a dense tunnel of people lining the sides of the steep canyon of despair, each voice shouting and imploring, revelling in the pain of the contestants. Somewhere on the slope was Christian, waving a BSCC jersey. I wouldn’t have known.

A hill climb on the rake is unlike anything else you will ever do on a bicycle.

As the road kicked up ahead of my front wheel, my head went down and I was out of the saddle forcing the pedals through each revolution. The gear got taller and taller and taller. Over the 300 yards I slowed down and I knew I was over-geared but also just had to push through and get up. I can say with honesty that I was nervous and afraid of this section and also nervous and afraid that I had gone one tooth too big. I was genuinely worried I might fall off, or slip, or grind to an undignified halt, it’s that steep. Instead I laboured and struggled but kept it going.

I’ve never really gone into extreme debt on a climb. Some might view this as a failing of mine. It’s the essential ingredient of the hill climber, the last weapon in the armoury. I’ve felt sick and bit yucky for a while after some big efforts. Generally though I finish fairly fresh, riding through the line and cruising to a halt. Today, at around the 150 metres to go, the world around me began to collapse in on itself. It felt like reality itself was slipping away and my grasp on what was happening to my body and lungs had altered immeasurably.

Halfway up a 25% section in a National Hill Climb strange and slightly unnerving stuff begins to happen. My hearing went in and out, people were shouting and the words headed out and massed together in a synaesthetic swirl of colour, my eyes were showing signs of pain, dark splotches at the periphery of vision, and all the time the tunnel of noise and sound and people, now massed as one indescribable  wall of everything, crept inwards.

But there was a moment of ridiculous clarity: one voice stood out above the rest, I could suddenly hear Peter Graham, “…and this is Paul Jones, Bristol South, and … and… it looks a bit overgeared does that’. And I knew he was right. As I hit the lamp-post where the gradient eases to a mild 20% I resolved to get back on top of the monstrous gear and get it turning. To be honest, it was only a little bit too big, and only for a short section, it just happened to be the 25% section. I’m not sure it cost me anytime, and over the full distance I think it might have made me ride a bigger race than I would have if i’d spun up.

But by then I was chaff waiting to be pecked up by the birds. My lungs and legs were gone and I silently turned the pedals and crossed the line. 100 metres further along I paused, stood and gasped my way back into consciousness. I rode through the catchers, I could probably have done with catching, it was appealing, but in that moment I was unable to make the decision.  I had no control of the bike.

There are horses for courses. Today was a day for the puncheurs and the hardcore sprinters with a decent power to weight ratio. It was not a day for the lanky, thin, long striplings. It was a violent and abusive climb. For this peculiar reason it was utterly fantastic. I can’t imagine wanting it any other way, it’s a true test that takes the rider way over and above any semblance of pace or reason. The sensation of riding up through the top of the Rake was unlike anything I have experienced before. It was also the hardest thing I have ever done on a bike, by which i mean it required the most brutal, alienating, savage and physically outrageous effort.

Today was a day for Jack Pullar, a ferociously fast rider over the shorter stuff. Matt Clinton, working with a 55” gear to optimum effect, took his umpteenth podium place. It was also a day for Glyn Griffiths, the BSCC pocket dynamo, who took 8th place with a spectacular ride. Rob Gough was 7th, representing the Westcountry with souplesse.

Glyn rides to a brilliant 8th place.

Tejvan was probably first of the tall thin chaps in 13th place. Lynn Hamel took the ladies’ course record with a staggering 3.09. I managed 35th place with 2.51 and I am pleased. There were about 30 riders within 3 seconds or so. I claimed some scalps on a difficult and cold day. I did not disgrace myself on a climb that did its (un)level best to disgrace me, and I rode as hard and as fast as I could. I managed a dead heat with Ben Lane of GS Metro, who also rode as hard and as fast as he could.

Ben Lane of GS Metro
Tejvan in full flight

And now, after a season that started in february, I am due some cakes and ale. There will be a full and lyrical report on the eating of the cakes and ale in the forthcoming weeks.

Last Rides

Autumn Sweater

I went out on the hill climb weapon this morning for a last session prior to Sunday’s race. It involved several repetitions of short and steep hills in and around Bristol. I did Constitution Hill 3 times and Clifton Vale/Hensmans Hill 3 times.

I then rode through Ashton Court which was still and quiet in the damp autumnal weather. There were some scary looking stags making horrible and angry noises in some kind of lascivious deersex way.

Deer noise

I’m going to give the Rake the once over on Saturday, but that’s it until the race on Sunday… only 3 minutes left.

Anatomy of A Hill Climb

Once i’d decided that I was going to go fixed this year, and therefore go fixed properly, I set  about converting my winter frame, a bob jackson vigorelli path/track iron, into a fully-fledged hillkiller. It took me longer than i thought and i went down a few blind alleys in search of weight savings. I also knew that i faced a simple handicap in that the frame and fork weight was about 1600g.

I had to swap the fork and front end out to make any significant gains. This is much easier said than done, finding a 1″ threadless carbon fork with carbon steerer that is light and stiff is very tricky, a bit like looking for a block of ossau iraty in Asdabedminster. In the end, and for a bit of a premium, i tracked one down on the ebay. I suspect a few other people had the same idea because it was a proper bunfight. It was worth it in the end, saving a bit more than half a kilogramme.

I also ran a 3/32 drivetrain, i imagined it to be lighter than a butch eighth pitch chain, but might be wrong. Weightweenies was a valuable (if pornographic) resource during my quest for lightness. They have a useful database of feathery things. I am aware that through all of this I was essentially trying really hard to create a really light bike when i already had a really light bike in the cupboard, but that’s not quite the full story. Building a fixed hillclimb machine is one of the most fun things you can do. It’s also a bike that has an absolutely defined purpose: riding uphill fast. The specialist nature of the task and the event appeals to that latent autism that all men possess.

Here is a more detailed list of the componentry.

1. Reynolds 631 Bob Jackson Vigorelli Frame, 57cm; 1700g; Carbon fork and steerer; 420g; 3TTT ARX Pro Stem 150g; Chopped bars, 220g; Cane Creek TT lever, no cap, chopped half-length; 42g; Campag chorus 39t ring, 172.5 centaur cranks, record 102mm BB, 732g; DA carbon pedals 250g; Campag veloce caliper, 150g; front wheel: PX carbon laced to PX hub with conti comp tub: 660g; Rear wheel: Arc-En-Ciel laced to Royce hub with conti tub; 960g; Alien USE Carbon seatpost; 142g; SLR saddle, 123g; chain/bolts/bits/cables/sprockets, 750g (3/32 drivetrain to save weight)

Bike weight = 6.329 kg

Once you go down the route of spending money on lighter things, you then become suddenly aware of one of the truisms of cycling: it’s far far cheaper to shed weight on the rider than it is on the bike. I’m quite light, but for hill climb season i tend to take this to the edges of quite lightness. I stop eating chocolate and treats and don’t drink anything alcoholic. Incidentally, i don’t tend to drink very much at all these days anyway, it’s utterly incompatible with regular racing. In hill climb season I eat considerably less than ‘normal’ people. People seem confused that I have only one small sandwich and a banana for lunch. Race weight during the regular season tends to be 68 kilograms, or 150lbs. During hillclimb season it drops to 65kg, sometimes 64kg, or 141lbs. At this kind of weight you tend to feel dizzy and light-headed when you stand up. You can feel your ribs and your sitbones tend to make wooden chairs or benches a little bit uncomfortable. Long days at work with no snacks between frugal meals produce a feeling of emptiness. It’s at the lower reaches of the BMI index.

Combined bike and rider weight: 71kg

When out on the bike, when the form starts to arrive, you feel a sense of helium-induced invincibility and the pulse quickens at the base of any climb, a feeling endorsed by the knowledge that you can get out of the saddle and fly upwards. It’s a fantastic feeling. When I’m out training on fixed, spinning between a 57 and a 64, I sometimes get passed heading to a climb by a roadman on gears. Once the road tilts uphill the roles are reversed and the bike acquires a life of its own, the lack of weight and the relentlessness of the right gear align perfectly and I glide past the startled cyclist and leave them floundering. Occasionally they catch up on the flat some time later and a dawning recognition hits them, they’ve been skinned by a self-certified lunatic: a member of the hill climb fraternity on a specialist and home-made weapon.  

as a caveat, there is always a thinner gorilla…

thinner gorilla

On Monday I am going to Cadbury World with Belle, where apparently you can ‘create your own delicious taste sensation covered in warm liquid Cadbury Dairy Milk’. I am planning to eat the entire contents of the factory.

The Srampagmano Tales

Cycling books are pretty generic. They start off with a gentle preamble through the early days of the hero (or antihero) by looking at the moment when they got their first bike and it all rolls along happily from there. I’ve read just about every single cycling book in current publication. This includes Nicolas Roche’s journal thing. I came to the conclusion that he needs to ride a bit more and possibly win something before he writes another book. Anyway, there are some exceptions to the rule; some cycling books seem to tiptoe towards a more erudite and elegant form of prose. The highest point of the genre is The Rider by Tim Krabbe. It’s a work of understated genius and needs no further comment from me. Tomorrow We Ride is also a subtle and eloquent account of bike racing. I also really liked Laurent Fignon’s book. Outside of the professional peloton there are some gems; Nick Hand’s Conversations on the Coast is beautifully written and presented, a book about the great outdoors, craftsmanship and the significance of the journey as a metaphorical and literal process.

The sometimes uneasy mix of cycling and literature has another worthwhile addition; Scarlett Parker’s The Srampagmano Tales. Whilst it’s not unexpected that someone might write a book about the various different types of cyclists, it’s probably not expected that such a book should be written entirely in rhyming couplets and loosely (or fairly closely) modelled on the Canterbury Tales. It also has beautiful illustrations, etched in monochrome. For all these factors I urge you to get a copy. It’s cheaper than a pint of mead and available to download. It’s also funny and unerringly precise. Scarlett’s book really tickled me, and being  a fan of Chaucer, by Godde’s digne bones, I tracked him down for a few quick questions…

I bought the book. I had to install kindle on my phone. i don’t have one of them things. Where did the idea come from?

I’d written the odd poem about cycling in the past, and in the early days of the lfgss forum (a small forum back then, now a frighteningly huge internet phenomenon) I contributed to threads for cycling haiku and limericks.  It was fun, and people enjoyed what I’d written, but ultimately it was all a little insubstantial and frustrating. While those thoughts were rattling around my head, I was doing my usual thing at the time of riding up and down the short sharp climbs that criss-cross the Pilgrims Way just beyond Biggin Hill, and then I think I picked up a translation of Chaucer’s text one day to see where the pilgrims started their journey, and to scan a well known example of a certain poetic meter. A vague concept was formed.
The Pilgrim’s Way
Why the Canterbury Tales as a model?
It begins with a prologue. It describes people from a fairly broad spectrum of society, but with a common interest. It involves a journey. It begins in my home town. It involves myth, the sublime, the ridiculous. My original working title was ‘The Campagnolo Tales’, but in the end I wanted to avoid legal ramifications and tedious accusations of being a componentry partisan. I’m not a big Chaucer scholar or anything.
Regarding the couplets, do you sense a link between the metrical certainty of the iambic (largely) couplet and the mechanical rhythm and cadence of cycling?
Yes, definitely. I’d not really tried writing iambic pentameter to any great degree before, but it seemed the go-to choice for a more narrative project. Writing and performing lyrics was something I’d done a lot in the past – I spent over a decade recording solo music and playing in bands – and despite eventually getting sick of all that, I still have a very musical brain. When I got back into cycling as an adult, I quickly realised that rhythm was the main thing that propelled me further or faster. I devoured literature on training and technique and so on, and certainly made conscious efforts to implement much of what I read, but it was always those moments where the hypnotic movements of the automaton kicked in, orchestrating the engine, that I’d find myself riding most strongly. The same thing happens with writing verse.  You practise, neurological connections are primed, you flounder, you focus, and then suddenly the rhythm’s driving you along, like a stoker.  You just sit up front and decide when to change direction or put the brakes on. And what else but heroic couplets could do justice to the noble feats of strength and endurance synonymous with cyclesport. Or something.
You identify a number of ‘tribes’ or ‘groups’…. do you feel that this reflects the plurality of cycling culture at the moment? 
I realise it’s natural for readers to ascribe themselves (or acquaintances) to the groups in my book, but I’m slightly bored with the ‘cycling tribe’ rhetoric that’s been floating around the wider cycling media for a while now.  It’s no doubt a result of the cycling resurgence in countries where it’s been suppressed by car culture for such a long time, and the need to seek or assign identity within the amorphous whole. Humans clearly like belonging to a group, but would prefer it to be a ‘reasonably sized’ group. The tribes that I saw described, however, tended to be driven more by fashion than cycling heritage, and so I decided to go with the latter when deciding on a set of characters.  Some have been around longer than others, but I think they’re all more about how they ride than what they wear.
Is there a group that didn’t get in? 
Originally I thought about doing 22 characters – I think that’s how many Chaucer had; but he died before writing all of the ones he wanted to, and I don’t really have the temperament to plod along on a single project for the rest of my life.  Others that I toyed with were ‘poloistas’, ‘nightriders’, ‘charity riders’, ‘commuters’, ‘tweedies’ – stuff like that. I also quickly made the decision to limit it to road riding. I’ve done some singlespeed and fixed mountain biking, and dabbled in cross and BMX, but I think I lacked the insight for those disciplines, and ultimately lacked the interest too.
I’m keen on all the characterisations, but have a clear affinity with The Tester’s Tale; “a float day on a fast course would be nice… just one within my lifetime would suffice’, not to mention the marshalls in the rain… Which one do you feel closest to? 
Well, as the narrator of the piece, my identity isn’t fully divulged, but ‘puncheurs‘ get a brief mention, and that’s what I am. The moments when I really come alive on a bike are short sharp climbs, sudden inexplicable accelerations, putting the hammer down on twisty undulating terrain.  Too slight to be an out-and-out sprinter, too heavy to be a mountain goat, too impulsive to time trial well. Having said that, I’m also made up of all the characters, just like many other cyclists.  It’s a broad church, and people like to experiment. I tend to ride how my mood takes me, and I’m a bit schizoid.
it strikes me as a celebration of the bicycle, as much as the people that ride it… 
Yes, and no. We decided on a ‘no bicycles’ rule for the illustrations, aside from a bit of wheel on the cover. This was partly because my wife hates drawing them, but also because I think there’s enough other stuff out there fetishising the object. It’s always there, facilitating, but I wanted to keep the focus on the riding as much as possible. It’s about who we are in the context of riding, but of course the bicycle’s the conduit. I’m not immune to the aesthetic, or the technological, but I like bicycles best when they disappear beneath you, and all that’s left is the rhythm and the road.
What do you hope people take away from the tales?
A sense of fellowship, and a desire to ride their bikes and collect tales of their own.

Burrington Combe Hill Climb: Fix Up Look Sharp!

Last night i didn’t sleep fantastically well. It was classic case of ‘race eve nerves’. At one point I was literally dreaming about the Burrington Hill Climb. In my addled and sleep-deprived mind I dreamt that Tavis Walker obliterated the course record with a 6.21, slicing a mere 30 seconds from Tejvan’s mark in 2011. I was glad when morning came around. I ate some nutella on toast and then rode down to the Mendips.

In a roundabout sort of way I tend to target the Burrington Hill Climb (even in my dreams). I know that not having form for September and the 1st week of October is fine, as long as I can sense that it’s not far away. I’m sure it’s the same for most cyclists, but you tend to know when you’re heading in the right direction: things start to feel good and the weight stays at the right place. More so than that, riding uphill at a brisk tempo becomes relatively easy. Last weekend at Holme Moss and Jackson Bridge I felt as though I was getting there; i felt light and relatively quick, even if the time and placing told a slightly different story. I had an inkling that a few more training rides this week followed by a short taper – essentially 2 full days rest – would do the trick. If i time it right then it carries over into the last week of the season and the National Hill Climb, which is pretty much what happened last year.

The Burrington Hill Climb is my favourite event and it’s the one that means the most to me in cycling terms. 3 years ago, it was my first event and I came 5th. I’ve already said this in this blog, so apologies for repetition. Essentially it kickstarted everything else that you may have since read about. It led to a transformation from being a weekend leisure cyclist, if not too hungover, to becoming a fully fledged racing snake. Burrington is an absolute measure of progress in terms of placings. If I do well, then the season suddenly becomes much more successful than it might have seemed 8 minutes previously. It’s also a classic roadman’s climb – tough and challenging, but also long and without any evil pitches in gradient. This suits me down to the ground, you can just about ride it at threshold, a sort of TT pace but slightly above the 10 mile effort, without needing to go into the total paroxysm of oxygen death. With the exception of the sprint for the line, of course.

The event was fantastically well supported with the biggest number of spectators I’ve seen on the Combe road. The bend before the cattle grid was lined with eager spectators, gladiatorially cheering the combatants onward and upwards. I confess: i forewent a long warm-up and for the first half of the race I was also cheering before heading down to race, then sneaking back down after my ride to catch the last 10 or so. The atmosphere was fantastic, pots, pans and cowbells were ringing out along with shouts and cheers. Rich Lewton took some super pictures.

Marc Allen throws his gurn at the climb, i wave a cowbell and shout aggressively in his face to help matters along.

I had a minor degree of gear anxiety before this event. My sneaking suspicion was that it would be quicker on gears, but I’d opted for fixed, so that was that. I stuck a 16 tooth cog on the back (39 on front), aiming for about 64″ which should have been just right, but I feared might be a tiny bit light on some of the faster (flatter) sections. I knew that Tavis Walker was also riding fixed, along with some other riders further down the field, possibly one or two more.

Tavis on a particularly lush 27″ Rotrax Super Course.

A quick run up the climb confirmed that it would be fine. I always forget that essentially you’re not going to spin out a 64″ gear going uphill. 19mph requires a cadence of 100rpm, the race is won with a 16mph average speed. Competition at the top was ferocious, with Rob Gough fresh from his win at Catford, Glyndwr Griffiths alongside having won at Cardiff Byways and nailed 4th at both the Cat and Bec, and Tavis still pedalling in the same super smooth circles he turned in a season of successful elite road racing for Wilier.

Whilst warming up Tavis said he thought the climb ‘had my name on it’. I was a bit sheepish and doubted this. He then said (and I might be paraphrasing slightly, but this is very much the gist):

‘Sometimes you just have to turn up and smash it, and know you’re going to smash it, and then get out on the road and smash it’.

I definitely had managed the first bit; the ‘turning up’, but it was the second bit that I was a bit unsure about. I told him i would certainly try and smash it. In truth, I knew i’d throw the kitchen sink at the climb, because I know the climb and was fairly sure about how to pace it.

I used my Casio wristwatch as a timer. This means starting it when the timekeeper gets to ’10’. I always forget this and then think my ride is even slower than I thought it was. This can have a beneficial effect in that I then try a bit harder to rescue things. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a Garmin on the bike. The lower slopes were fine, i got into a rhythm but with a real sense of urgency, I kept asking myself if I could turn it a bit quicker, maybe go a bit faster. I didn’t want to lose any time or pace. Rounding the corner and onto the straight ahead of the bend I could see a line of people curving round and could hear the noise reverberating around the tree-lined walls, impelling me upwards.

James Chant passes the sea of colour and noise, chasing that elusive sub-9 minute ride
(pic Rich Lewton)

Once over the cattle grid I checked my watch and the time was surprisingly slow. I didn’t think I was having an off-day, but it was just ticking over at about 7 minutes. I distinctly remember thinking that Tejvan would have finished by now (going by last year’s staggeringly quick course record) and I still had about a minute to go. The dreamtime Ur-Tavis would have finished an hour ago. At this point you don’t tend to think, ‘oh it must be a slow day’, you just tend to think ‘i’m not going well or anywhere near quick enough, but I hope that it’s the same for everyone and maybe, just maybe it’s a slow day and I can be happy with a slow time’.

mendip murkery

At the top the fog was fairly dense and it made it very hard to see the finish. You had to trust your instincts and get it all out anyway. I was rasping like Keats in Rome,  but finally managed to see the rusty cars on the right and the bright timekeeper’s umbrella on the left which signalled the cessation of hostilities. The casio said i’d managed it in around 7.50 or so. I spun back down to the bend and cheered on the remaining racers. For about ten minutes i struggled with deep feelings of nausea. I overcame these by shouting at riders.

the end of the race, the onset of nausea

it’s always great to see other riders going up, and something you don’t always get the chance to do. I cheered on Rob Gough by doing an old fashioned TdF close-up shout and cheer.

4 times as long as the Cat or Bec…

It was great to see so many first-timers taking on the unrelenting but curiously addictive challenge of the hill climb. Dan Levrier rode fantastically well, taking 17th place and carding a 9.05. It would have certainly been sub 9 if he’d reversed the cap and ditched the wellies.

Dan Levrier, bag maker and coffee enthusiast, gives it some welly

And i also managed to witness a few other people trying to put down a marker in the most contested competition of the year: Faces of Pain, 2012…

Every sinew is at the limit. The nose runneth untempered.
Tom W closes his eyes and for a few stuttered moments glimpses Elysium
Afterwards, Tom Ilet said, ‘I rode the perfect 6 minute hillclimb’. This photo was taken at around the 7 minute mark. Tom is now a clear frontrunner in FOP 2012.
I hope that this slightly skewed grin is a primitive response to pain and not a sign that Mark is actually enjoying the experience.

I was still no nearer to knowing how i’d done. I bumped into Rob Gough on the way back to the HQ and he said he’d ridden a 7.51 and was lying second. I suspected this left me in first place, waiting on Tav’s time. This was confirmed when I saw the results board; i’d managed a 7.48.9 to Rob’s 7.51.4. Glyn had handed in a 7.52.9. It was suddenly squeaky bum time. After an eternity, the remaining times were delivered by hand. Tavis managed a 7.52.3.

I’ve won 4 open events this year. Each one has been pretty amazing, but I’ve not felt overwhelmed at any point. Today was entirely different. Of all the events I’ve ridden, this one singularly means more than the rest. To win the event was overwhelming. I felt emotional and elated; my peers were incredibly gracious in their praise. Even now, as I type this, I find it hard to believe that I’ve won against such stellar and impressive riders. I’m also thrilled to bits that i managed it on fixed wheel. This shouldn’t surprise any devotees of the sport, but in these days of super-light alien weaponry, riding a Bob Jackson with 631 Reynolds tubes is a slightly brave step. Possibly not as brave as riding a 1950 Rotrax, but on a par. Bristol South CC took the team prize, unsurprisingly, with 1st, 3rd and 4th (and 7th and 10th) and the fixed prize went to Malcolm Chave of Okehampton – the chap who sportingly rode up Haytor on a 64″ gear earlier this year. Lucy Walker took the ladies prize, just nudging ahead of Claire Greenfield and Christina Gyles – a sharp BSCC ladies’ team if ever there was one.

In a sense, my season is done. It’s changed from being a pretty surprising and successful year to being something else entirely – a year that I’ll probably look back on with a mixture of awe and amazement and will be proud of in future. After getting a bit of a kicking on a few different climbs, along with a great ride on Haytor, it all came together at the right moment. I’m proud to have won this event for Bristol South CC and for John Kempe.

Constancy of purpose is the secret of success…

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